January 2014 Archives

What Does it Mean to Have a Right to Higher Education?, by Paige Scheckla (1L)

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins by stating that every person has a right to education. Yet it ends, perhaps contradictorily, by declaring that higher education shall be “equally accessible” to every person “on the basis of merit.” This post examines by which standard we might judge “merit" in order to ensure higher education is “equally accessible” to all. It also explores the implications such wording has for both internationally and intranationally underserved communities.

In the United States, we measure merit for entry to higher education almost purely numerically, through relative test scores and grade point averages (GPAs). However, the word “merit” is actually quite ambiguous. Merit, according to most dictionaries, simply means having a quality that is deemed praiseworthy. This suggests that many people may be meritorious without high test scores or good grades. Since the United States and most other developed nations currently determine merit almost exclusively through test scores and grades, those who do not possess extraordinary numbers, but have other praiseworthy talents, may have unequal access to higher education. Affirmative action is one method the United States, along with Canada and the UK, employs to avoid pigeon-holing students with less than stellar numbers. However, this method has been controversial because it is often seen more as an attempt to meet racial quotas than to meaningfully alleviate problems of unequal access.

If numbers are not the best way to determine merit, nor the best mechanism to promote equal access to education, what standard might be better? In addition to numbers, a factor-based approach to merit involves consideration of backgrounds, artistic contributions, disabilities, athletic qualities, geographic diversity, faith-based involvement, and other “softs.” This method is used by many schools, such as the University of California system. While the factor-based approach may grant a broader segment of the population access to higher education, many criticize this method because it relies on the personal discretion of admissions staff. Critics point out that individuals who might be “excellent students,” but who lack opportunities to engage in artistic, athletic, or other cultural activities, may not gain admission to schools using this approach. There is also the risk that admissions staff may unwittingly allow their innate biases to influence their judgments, leading them to reject students based upon arbitrary factors, such as affiliations or other information on students’ applications or resumes.

Even if one has the “merit” it takes to enter the higher education system, he or she might not have the financial resources to attend a university. A college education often costs a fortune due to rising tuitions and costly expenditures on campus infrastructure. High costs are especially a problem when student loans are not widely available. This is the case, for example, in many African countries and for undocumented students living in developed nations who do not qualify for government loans. Community colleges in the United States are one avenue that many take to access higher education at a lower cost. However, problems like overcrowding and budget cuts often make the community college route a lengthy process and just as costly as going straight to a four-year institution. Moreover, the United States is one of the only nations with a comprehensive community college system. Since making higher education free for all would be infeasible for most countries due to political and economic barriers to increasing taxes, the problem of unequal access is likely to remain.

While in theory we may want equal access to higher education based on merit, it does not seem practical to institutionalize Article 26 of the University Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, underserved populations often have limited opportunities to attend college because they lack resources and access to primary and secondary education. However, pathways to higher education often already exist for wealthy families whose children have attended universities for generations. This inequality is present not only in poor countries, but also for poor populations within rich countries, such as the United States. In order to address these inequalities, people and their governments must take a close look at their higher education systems and ask what qualities they value in students and what they can do to ensure equal access to all in line with the spirit of the Declaration.